In our weekly tape breakdown, containing him was key – but it was the offense's speed and consistency that stole the show.
Ryan Nassib was at it again.
The redshirt senior, in his last game at the Carrier Dome, Nassib showed trust in his stable of wideouts. While the first drive didn't end up in six points because of a dropped chance by Jarrod West, the table-setter got the offense going with a big heave to Jeremiah Kobena beforehand. Despite getting hit on the big play, causing the ball to fall a bit short, the speedster adjusted in a timely fashion to help the Orange get points on the board.
That was all seemingly that Nassib needed to get going. He was steady underneath and took what the defense gave him initially, also finding a way to move the chains as a runner in the read-option scheme. Nassib made all the right decisions, and never even put the ball in harm's way. He was on time with his timing routes and it began to draw the Cardinals towards his underneath routes. That allowed Nassib to work the seams with Alec Lemon, and the two put on a clinic on a hot QB can connect with an elite route-runner no matter what the defense presents. And when they weren't working underneath, Lemon was open over the top on a pair of scores. On each, which put Syracuse in the driver's seat – Nassib worked the free safety with his shoulders to buy Lemon more time on his route.
Nassib's pace and timing set the tone, but Jerome Smith provided the early balance for the offense on the way to 31 first-half points. He was patient and trusted his eyes out of SU's running from the spread look. In that zone scheme, it's important to hold blocks more so than driving you man down the field. That worked for SU early on, as Smith used his vision to remain patient before exploding out of the hole. The most impressive skill he showed was a continued patience that enabled him to cut backside or one hole sooner than the play was designed to – which resulted in most of his 144 yards rushing. Prince-Tyson Gulley was once again a great compliment to Smith, who often made the first defender miss on the way to his own 98-yard day. On his pair of scores, he showed impressive balance in the open field to make the only defender between he and pay-dirt miss. Ashton Broyld and Adonis Ameen-Moore each got a few carries of their own in the big win, with Broyld showing a bit of elusiveness and AAM showing his classic power in the "Tank" package. Even Lewellyn Coker got into the mix, catching a goal line TD pass from Nassib after a play-action fake.
Lemon got SU going through the air, in what is just his latest display of route-running excellence coupled with top-notch hands. Whether it was a big play where he had to get down field or a simple third-and-seven conversion, Lemon was Nassib's guy once again. Their chemistry is unmistakable at this point, and it stems from timing and trust. Lemon in the slot is a matchup nightmare for any defense because of his grit, route-running and veteran savvy with the sticks or near the goal-line. Not to mention his hands, all making him a consistent threat. Marcus Sales, Kobena and West each combined for just four catches in this one – but it was okay because of how hot the Nassib-to-Lemon connection was. The senior turned it on late last season and he is doing the same in 2012 as he seems to rise in critical, pressure-packed situations.
Any time the offense produces nearly 300 yards on the ground, it's a shout out to the big guys up front. While Smith and Gulley made plays and made men miss when needed, the group up front was dominant in the run game and solid in pass protection as well. The success in protecting Nassib had plenty to do with their dominance in the run game, enabling the play-action passes and hesitant defensive lineman looking to play the run. Justin Pugh was a force throughout the game in both departments. He was tasked as the seal-blocker on plenty of the off tackle and outside runs, and he delivered on nearly all chances he got including some impressive pancakes at both the first and second level. Zack Chibane overcame an early penalty en route to holding his own on the interior, as did Macky MacPherson and Rob Trudo. The center was beat to prevent a first down in one of the line's rare misses, as was Sean Hickey on both a running play and when Nassib suffered the hardest hit of the game in the third quarter. Other than the rare blunders, the unit played as one and sustained their blocks long enough for the backs to make their moves.
The defense gave up 26 points in the game, but it really adjusted to Louisville's scheme throughout the game and prevented consistent big plays that plagued the Orange early in the season. There was a pair of big ones that were simple breakdowns, but otherwise it was a bottling effort.
Up front, the unit was active and disciplined all afternoon. Big runs have hurt the defense of late and Louisville only accumulated 48 yards in the loss. A big part of that was the activity up front, particularly in the interior. Deon Goggins and Jay Bromley really set the tone against the Cardinals center and pair of guards. Goggins had a tackle for loss and interrupted Bridgewater on a pair of pass attempts. Bromley had the defensive play of the game, stealing momentum on third-and-short with great penetration off the jump en route to a tackle for loss. He also showed the ability to get down the line in pursuit, in what was one of his better efforts of the season. On the edge, Markus Pierce-Brewster and Brandon Sharpe held contain well in staying home against jet-sweeps and all the outside testing that UofL tries to wear a defense with. Micah Robinson proved that Scott Shafer's game plan was executed well, as he made a splash using his opposite shoulder to stymie the run game when given the chance against pulling linemen.
The second-level defenders continued to get to the ball swiftly, though it cost them on one big play. Bridgewater executed a throw-back screen well enough to fool Siriki Diabate and Dyshawn Davis, but not Marquis Spruill. He read the play well, but was the only player between the runner and the end zone. He was blocked and UofL bridged the gap, but only some. The only other big gash was a TD pass to Eli Rogers, who split each safety in cover two only because Diabate didn't get a hand on him underneath. Other than the pair of mistakes, the group played well and bottled up everything underneath. Spruill got off his block well all afternoon, as did Davis – who added an interception to really shut the door on any Cardinals rally. Diabate continued to fill the hole well, and he didn't overpusrue as much as we have seen him of late. The linebackers have adjusted to their weaknesses against the run and seem poised to finish the year strong.
The secondary remains headed in the right direction, too. On the outside, Keon Lyn and Ri'Shard Anderson played well for the most part. Anderson, who was picked on earlier this season, has stepped up over the last few weeks. He even displayed good ball skills in the end zone early on. However, he was beat later in the game for six points with the game out of reach because he couldn't get his head around in time to make a play on the ball. The same thing happened to Brandon Reddish earlier in the game, who also was at fault on the screen pass that went for six when he took a bad angle in pursuit. Each corner was a better tackler in this game and the safeties behind them supported the run well. Jeremi Wilkes made some of the best breaks on the ball he has all season long. Shamarko Thomas continues to show his big-hitting ability and play-making ability underneath. He got off of blocks well and filled the hole efficiently as always. More importantly for both, each stayed back and played it safe to prevent consistent big gains in the passing department.
The third phase of Syracuse football played well all afternoon. The kickoff game was spear-headed by Ryan Norton's deep kicking ability, which resulted in plenty of touchbacks. When his kicks were in the field of play, the coverage was great – especially from Dan Vaughan. Punt coverage remained solid as well, and Coker continues to play Johnny on the spot with yet another fumble recovery to swing momentum. Rithcy Desir showed more ability as a punt returner, making some defenders miss in the open field to flip the field position to the Orange's favor. Jeremiah Kobena echoed Desir as a kick returner, showing his top-notch speed mixed in with a few nice moves in the lane. Even Eric Crume, who got his hands on an extra point, helped to make the win one of SU's best special teams efforts of 2012.
Syracuse pulled out all the stops against a very good Louisville team last week, but a new challenge in Missouri is on the horizon. The SEC school has been up-and-down all season, like SU has, and is looking to continue their own momentum from a big win. If ‘Cuse is to hang with the former Big 12 bunch, it will need to continue its steady offense, which could gash the vulnerable Tigers. Defensively, it must again limit big plays against a sometimes impatient quarterback. And if the special teams can somehow harness any of the momentum from Saturday, the unit has a chance to make some more plays.
Bowl eligibility is one win away for the second season in a row, but it will take some trend-bucking to avoid last season's fate.